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Having worked on key scenes for the likes of Trainspotting, Robin Hood, The Bourne Ultimatum and multiple Bonds, Mike Valentine is one of the world’s leading experts on shooting underwater. Here he explains the depths of his crafts.
What was your big break as a specialist in underwater cinematography?
I was making short films when, around 1986, Nic Roeg invited me to go to the Seychelles for two months to shoot Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed in Castaway. Castaway was my step into the industry and I was very lucky because Nic gave me free rein to play with scenes. He said, ‘If they’re no good I won’t use them but if they’re great, people will think they’re my idea!’ And that’s how I started in the feature-film business. Then in very short order I moved onto things like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I managed to get a foothold in the features industry and started to get a little bit of a name for being an underwater DoP.
You’ve also shot a lot of commercials; do they present other challenges?
Commercials are in effect mini feature films, the whole of life in 30 seconds, where you have to establish a character and move the audience to support the characters—and also to sell the product as well. In effect I guess I invented my own film school where I would have to work out a script [and] work out more importantly who was going to buy the product, because obviously show business is a phrase that people use a lot, but business is the larger word.
Obviously, whatever you’re shooting, light reacts differently underwater. How do you deal with that?
When we go underwater, people appear to be very pale and washed-out. That’s because the first colour in the spectrum absorbed by water is red, and a lot of red is contained within our skin. This means that we have to replace the lost colour underwater. I’ve developed a technique of using certain lighting fixtures underwater, Kino Flos based on tungsten or daylight colour balance as a very soft source, which we can also use to act as a very soft fill. We still light through the surface; we simulate the beautiful light rays coming down with either a 20k tungsten or an 18k HMI. So we can try to replace the lost colour and provide a natural fill with our lighting units.
As a specialist you have created your own niche in the industry, but you have also served that by developing equipment uniquely suited to the challenges you face…
I was quite frustrated with the poor standard of underwater camera equipment in this country, because obviously very few people can afford to buy 35mm gear with a camera housing that might be £300,000. So I decided to design my own underwater housing. Not so much as an engineer but more as an end user, as the actual operator. That’s why we were able to push the boundaries and do something that—at the time—no other camera system was able to do: that is to enable the focus puller to stay on the surface and control through a digital system the whole set-up of the camera, the focus and the aperture, through a digital cable.
What practical difference does that make for you as DoP?
It means I have the freedom to move the camera wherever I like without anybody being in the way. Just like a Steadicam in three dimensions. The [other] great advantage we have is that I can also see a playback underwater on a colour monitor, and that therefore means that the actors can be shown a playback whilst they can also hear the director talking to them underwater. That’s another great advantage that we have; high-quality communications. That’s one of the things that Francoise, my wife, actually does as First AD on the shoots, as well as setting up the shoots and acting as the underwater unit production manager. We have to try, if possible, to bring the production people down onto our shoulders underwater, so they can see the actors working. We can even do playback with people miming to playback for a pop promo, that’s how clear the underwater speaker system is.
What other developments in technology have you seen in almost 30 years in the business?
Well I’ve now bought my own ALEXA Plus, which we’re using a lot. I also shot the underwater scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean 4 on a RED, the Mysterium MX. I love hi-def because it gives a wonderful look to the underwater world. Hi-def and video in general always wants to play with contrast and boost it slightly and that’s wonderful because water is a relatively low-contrast medium. So we embrace new technology and move forward.
You were consulted when Pinewood Studios came to build their underwater stage, Stage U. What was your involvement?
I talked to them about the design of it when it was initially being built and run by a chap called Dave Shaw. It’s a stage within which is an underwater tank 60 feet by 30 feet by about 20 feet deep—20 metres by 10 metres by 6 metres—that gives us the opportunity of [sic] doing anything. Above all it allows us to put an actor into a relatively dangerous situation while making them feel totally at ease. The water is 90 degrees, making it incredibly warm, which gives the actor one less thing to worry about.
Can you give examples of how you’ve used it in recent films?
We worked with Halle Berry on a film called Dark Tide, and with Clint Eastwood on a film called Hereafter, where we had to simulate a tsunami. We also use a lot of green screen and blue screen with it, so for instance at the end of Atonement we have Keira Knightley shot against a blue screen so she can totally hang there motionless as if she has been drowned, and then insert her into a CGI background of a flooded underground station that’s needed for the scene.
You also filmed the climactic scene in Casino Royale there, with Eva Green’s character trapped in a lift in a falling Venetian building (see right).
Many people remember that scene because Eva gave such a great performance, but the reality is you need a great team of people around you, because for every actor underwater there is a safety diver. Safety is our mantra. We always have to balance the safety requirements against the artistic interpretation of a scene.
Find out more about Mike Valentine and his work at www.valentinefilms.com
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 27 (March/April 2012)
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